Management has given me a cruel task: preview fall cinema.
Now, this was not so difficult back in April, when I pontificated on the summer schedule. In fact, I rather enjoyed it. But that was back when my wife and I were merely expecting a child; now that our bundle of joy, seven pounds of gurgling, wide-eyed beauty named Larissa, has arrived (on August 25, a perfect time, as there isn’t much of note playing in that dead-zone period), daddy has a new role to play. While I’ve seen a fraction of what’s coming up at advanced screenings, I haven’t been to a movie theater since Pineapple Express a month ago. And seeing as how I’m on baby time, DVD and DVR viewing has been widely scattered.
I haven’t really missed it yet, but these have been cultural-doldrums weeks for me. Later-in-life (not Tony Randall late, but post-40) fatherhood is terrific, even if my part consists mostly of changing diapers and keeping mom calm through this and that unanticipated development. There have been very few, really, in the first three weeks — our daughter is a delight — but when you’re used to a certain order, “the monkey in the wrench,” as Bruce Willis put it in Die Hard, can throw you, particularly at 4:30 in the morning. So my moviegoing routine, unchanged for years, is out the window, and is unlikely to resume in quite the same way as this swinging cineaste redefines himself as a stay-at-home dad. (Or SAHD. Or SAD. Terrible acronyms both.)
Stay tuned as I adjust to this new and unfamiliar circumstance. In the meantime, a few gleanings from the crystal ball. But first, some housekeeping. Of the ten summer movies I earmarked for essential pre-death viewing in April, I saw six. I also saw Choke, which was moved to September 26, but not onto my fall favored list. Likewise, Crossing Over crossed over to a December berth but didn’t make the fall cut; the competition is fiercer in fall, when the excitement turns from Batman and Iron Man to Spike Lee and Mike Leigh, and the auteurs strike back for awards-season gold.
The two summer movies I didn’t see, but may before I die — or at least before Larissa hits pre-K — were Get Smart and Mamma Mia! (I trust you enjoyed them; reviews suggested they were, um, “crowd-pleasers.”) I still have a fighting chance to see Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which almost made the summer grade, is playing across the street, and is only as long as an average baby sleep session as mom watches the cradle. One observation from summer: it took Universal two movies, and an expenditure of over $300 million, to figure out that no one had any burning need for a film showcasing the Hulk.
And another: None of the movies I was really transported by this summer (Elegy, Man on Wire) were on my list back in April. (The most satisfying spectacle was provided by Zhang Yimou’s Olympics ceremonies, benign Triumph of the Will grandiosities.) Quality bubbles up unexpectedly, so keep your eyes open for the hidden pearls that may appear in the crammed fall schedule.
On with the show, organized by release date (which are subject to change), with bonus titles scattered about.
Towelhead (opened September 12 in limited release; expands September 19). I’m not sure if it’s a great movie, and reviews have ranged from cool to savage, lambasting its “exploitation” of teenage sexuality and race, but when I saw Towelhead in July it made this soon-to-be parent of a little girl squirm in his seat. My punched-in-the-gut response counts for something. (How many movies do you leave feeling nothing except being worked over in the usual way, with your wallet annoyingly lighter for the non-experience?)
Towelhead marks the directorial debut of Six Feet Under creator and American Beauty screenwriter Alan Ball, with all the good and bad that that implies. He’s unafraid to go under the skin, yet does so schematically, as if building a bridge rather than creating quality cinema — every wrongheaded character eventually shows a good side, and reassurance, if not redemption, is always within reach. But just barely, and after a truly awful plot development near the climax, one I felt at the pit of my stomach, I must admit I was relieved at the convenient niceties.
Half-Lebanese 13-year-old Jasira (played, with the stillness of a reflecting pool, by 20-year-old Summer Bishil) has her hands full when her free-living American mom (Maria Bello), upset at the impact her daughter’s burgeoning sexuality is having on her own boyfriend, dumps her in Houston on the doorstep of her wary, powder-keg father, Rifat (played, with a fixed sneer, by Peter Macdissi, who portrayed the supercilious art teacher Olivier on Six Feet Under). Rifat, who suspects that his neighbors suspect he’s sympathetic to Saddam Hussein and that he’d disparage Yanks as cultural bottom-feeders even if he didn’t (the film, based on a semi-autobiographical novel, is set during the Gulf War), is hardly the role model Jasira needs.
She stumbles, Lolita-like, from one sexually fraught situation to another, from curiosity about a neighbor’s cache of porn magazines to the neighbor himself, a red-blooded reservist played by Aaron Eckhart (bravely, I might add, having lambasted him before); their hot-and-cold scenes together are extremely uncomfortable. Sorting things out and imposing a little discipline is a practical, liberal-minded mother-to-be who’s new to the neighborhood, a Toni Collette type played impeccably by Collette herself.
Towelhead is, I think, the last film to go out under the recently shuttered Warner Independent Pictures label, and the specialty wing of a fat-cat distributor now only interested in producing tentpole after tentpole did not go quietly. Ball’s critics — I myself go back and forth as I give his new HBO show True Blood more of a chance — charge that he hates the suburbs, but so much goes on here and in his script for American Beauty that it’s not hard to refute that. (Few big-city pictures pack in as much drama.) In its considered, unafraid way, Towelhead raises a ruckus, peering deeply into keyholes that most films shy away from (or only play peekaboo with) and sharing what’s inside, pushing button after button — it’s inciting and insightful, a queasy combination even in skilled hands that serve up the findings with an acrid humor. Dull, Towelhead is not. Paraphrasing the tagline from another film about a more literal suburban hell, it knows what scares you.
Rachel Getting Married (October 3). No one wants Jonathan Demme to get off the mat more than I do. He’s the most gregarious and generous filmmaker I’ve ever interviewed (in 1986, about the wonderful Something Wild), and I was cheered by his Oscar success with The Silence of the Lambs (1991), though it was such a radical departure from a previously openhearted career. The too-cautious Philadelphia (1993) wasn’t bad, but since then his feature work has been lackluster to flat-out terrible (The Truth About Charlie in 2002 was that it was unwatchable), as if he had sold his soul to Hannibal Lecter. Advance word on this one, in which a rehabbing Anne Hathaway wreaks havoc at her sister’s mixed-race nuptials, is strong, and if Hathaway’s taste in scripts is better than her taste in boyfriends, we may have something other than a Margot at the Wedding reboot. From past Demme pictures, Sister Carol and Robyn Hitchcock bring good vibes to the ceremony, and playing the family matriarch is the Halley’s Comet of great actresses, Debra Winger.
Bonus 10/3 pick: I’m not a Bill Maher fan — pundits on either side of the political divide bore the hell out of me — but Religulous, a skewed documentary on faith made with director Larry Charles (Borat), has a chance of making a convert out of me.
Body of Lies (October 10). I went back and forth on this one, flip-flopping the slot with the December 26 release of Revolutionary Road, the adaptation of Richard Yates’s novel that reteams Leonardo DiCaprio with Titanic shipmate Kate Winslet under the direction of her husband, Sam Mendes. I loathed American Gangster, last year’s phony-baloney Ridley Scott/Russell Crowe picture, and this one looks a little like Tony Scott’s Spy Game, with Crowe masterminding Leo’s pursuit of a terrorist in Jordan. But it has a screenplay by William Monahan, author of Scott’s underrated Kingdom of Heaven (and Oscar winner for The Departed), and costars the comely Carice van Houten (Black Book — rent it tonight), which should get the pulse racing if the guys don’t deliver the goods. Hmm, maybe the Mendes picture will be better. Ah, what the hell, like I’m going to see either one of them in the theater anyway.
Bonus 10/10 pick: Mike Leigh’s sunny-side-up comedy-drama Happy-Go-Lucky, with a radiant performance by Sally Hawkins as a just-a-millimeter-away-from- terminally-annoying optimist whose good cheer is sorely tested by a deranged driving instructor (a hilariously apoplectic performance by Eddie Marsan). A relaxed outing from the veteran writer-director in his first film since the Oscar-nominated Vera Drake (2004).
And in the category of “If I get out of the house on or near October 10″: I’d rather see the acclaimed Spanish film [Rec], on which it’s based, but Quarantine looks to raise the hackles this Halloween season.
W. (October 17): I don’t know whether to laugh or cry over the follies of the Bush administration, and apparently Oliver Stone doesn’t either: he tries to show a little sympathy toward Shrub as the White House falls apart all around him (and us). Following in the presidential footsteps of his father, James (who played Ronny in the controversial 2003 TV film The Reagans), is long-rising star Josh Brolin, as the goof-off who charmed Laura (Elizabeth Banks), found religion, and became decider-in- chief, surrounded by a rogue’s cabinet including Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss), Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn), and Condi Rice (Thandie Newton). Stone isn’t exactly known for bringing the funny, but he cranked this out at a gallop to get it in theaters before the election (a good idea?), disproving the president’s contention, in remarks made in 2006, that “You never know what your history is going to be like until long after you’re gone.”
Bonus presidential pick: Frost/Nixon (December 5). Frank Langella and Michael Sheen (The Queen, also written by Peter Morgan) re-create their fine stage portrayals of the behind-the-scenes tussling that surrounded an overreaching David Frost’s famed 1977 TV interview with a distrustful Tricky Dick. I enjoyed the play yet can’t help thinking director Ron Howard will make more of it than is absolutely necessary, “opening out” what is essentially a two-hander with an overqualified supporting cast that includes Sam Rockwell, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, and W.‘s Toby Jones (here, uber-agent Swifty Lazar; there, uber-strategist Karl Rove). I do vote that you see the national touring production of the play, which should have Stacy Keach in fine fettle as the not-a-crook president.
Bonus Brolin: In Milk (November 26), Gus Van Sant’s decades-in-the-making biopic of openly gay San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), B. plays his detestable “Twinkie defense” slayer, Dan White.
Bonus Banks: It’ll be weirdly dirty, and possibly liberating, watching Laura Bush roll in the hay with Seth Rogen in Zack and Miri Make a Porno (October 31), Kevin Smith’s move on Judd Apatow’s repertory players.
Changeling (October 24): Director Clint Eastwood enters L.A. Confidential territory with the stranger-than-fiction story of Christine Collins, a hardworking single parent (1920s vintage) whose son disappears, then seemingly reappears five months later under equally murky circumstances that are unfavorable to the LAPD. Collins is played by Angelina Jolie, who gives her mighty, motherly heart another workout. I was more of an Eastwood fan before he became respectable in the eyes of the Academy with Unforgiven (1992); still, this material plays to his strengths, and the cast includes Oscar nominee Amy Ryan (whose Gone Baby Gone walked a similar beat) and Eastwood’s In the Line of Fire nemesis, John Malkovich.
Bonus Clint: Hollywood’s hardest-working 78-year-old pulls double duty as director and star for the first time since 2004’s Million Dollar Baby with Gran Torino, an ethnic friendship story opening Christmas Day. I’d love to see Clyde the orangutan in a Gran Torino.
Bonus Best Actress hopeful: Kristin Scott Thomas, now appearing on Broadway in The Seagull, is said to give the performance of a lifetime as an ex-con trying to renew family ties in I’ve Loved You So Long (October 22), one of her recent crop of French-language parts. What was I doing that was so important that I missed the early screenings of this one?
Quantum of Solace (November 14): The unlikely Daniel Craig unexpectedly applied the defibrillator to the sagging James Bond franchise and jump-started it with 2006’s Casino Royale. I like that Quantum is a direct sequel, the first time ever in the 22-film series (the “Blofeld trilogy” of 1967-1971 was halfhearted at best), and that it looks to retain the rough edges, startling stunt work, and surprising human touch that pumped new blood into a long-time filmic favorite. Best of all, my wife flipped for Casino Royale, so this one’s in the bag.
Bonus Daniel Craig: He costars with Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell as Jewish brothers allied with the Russian resistance and taking on the Nazis in Defiance (December 12), directed by Edward Zwick, once more into the breach (Glory, Blood Diamond).
Bonus 11/14 pick: Dimension Films, which released the gloomy Stephen King adaptation The Mist last Thanksgiving, has an even worse case of seasonal affective disorder in store with The Road, from Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic Oprah favorite (which is not an oxymoron). Viggo Mortensen, Charlize Theron, Guy Pearce, and Robert Duvall star, in rags, and John Hillcoat (of the no-holds-barred cult Western The Proposition) directs. Happy fucking holidays, assholes.
Australia (November 26): I enjoy big, foursquare epics done right, and I can only wonder what director Baz Luhrmann has up his trickster’s sleeve in his first film since 2001’s musical mash-up Moulin Rouge! He has the right stars — Nicole Kidman as an English aristocrat and Hugh Jackman as a native cattle drover thrown together as the “Pearl Harbor of Australia,” the Japanese bombing of Darwin, erupts in 1942 — but perhaps not the right temperament. He’s no David Lean or Fred Zinnemann (director of the 1960 Hollywood Oz story The Sundowners), yet maybe his ADD-ish, sensation-every-minute sensibility is what’s needed to adapt the form for the 21st century. (You’d think he would’ve come up with a hipper title, though, or at least put a “!” at the end. It’s pretty much a cinch I’ll see this one, though, under any title, as Jackman is the missus’s #1 media lust object.)
Slumdog Millionaire (November 28): I’m always rooting for Danny Boyle, another nice-chap filmmaker. In recent years he’s made a gripping horror picture (28 Days Later), a pleasant family movie (Millions), and a disastrous sci-fi film (Sunshine), but he looks to have hit the jackpot with this triumph-of-the-spirit comedy, about a poor orphan from Mumbai who flashes back on his life as he competes on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Expect distributor Fox Searchlight to give this one the full-court press it gave Little Miss Sunshine and Juno on their way to Oscar and box-office riches.
Bonus “triumph of the spirit”: Mickey Rourke destroyed his soft good looks with a one-two punch of a boxing career and bad post-ring plastic surgery, and has been playing thugs and cretins ever since. But he gets his Rocky moment as Randy “The Ram” Robinson in The Wrestler, a change of pace for the typically more cerebral director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain). The Ram’s wrestling with personal demons and a fearsome opponent will also be brought to you by Fox Searchlight at year’s end, which will no doubt be positioning Rourke for the winner’s circle.
Doubt (December 12): From Mamma Mia! to mother superior — Meryl Streep is a steely nun in John Patrick Shanley’s adaptation of his own award-winning play, which I saw twice in its Broadway run, once with Tony winner Cherry Jones (she plays the new president on the upcoming season of 24) and the other time with her replacement, British veteran Eileen Atkins. From the looks of it, Streep appears to out-starch both of them as a Catholic school administrator ferreting out accusations of child molestation against a popular priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in the Bronx in 1964. The investigation has ramifications for a novice (an un-Enchanted Amy Adams) and the mother (Viola Davis) of the school’s first black student in this tightly written, engrossing four-person drama. I pray Shanley won’t screw up his gilded property in its big-screen transition. Good news for fatigued potential-Oscar-nominee watchers: end credits included, Doubt should run no longer than 100 minutes.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (December 19): Curious indeed. David Fincher made my favorite movie of last year, Zodiac, so attention must be paid. But a fable running a rumored three hours (from an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story) and starring an aging-backwards Brad Pitt is an end-of-the-year question mark. It looks strangely beautiful. But what to make of it? Button should at least answer one question: provided they have scenes together, it’ll confirm that costars Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton are not the same person.
Bonus Year-End Challenge for the Kidneys: Steven Soderbergh’s two-part Che, which got a mixed response at Cannes, tops four hours. I wonder how long his upcoming Liberace biopic will be. Say, did Guevara and Liberace ever meet? I may be getting punchy at this point. More good news for the homebound: Che‘s distributor, IFC Films, will broadcast it through IFC’s video-on-demand service in January.
Final thought: if you found this at all useful, pass the hat and buy me a Blu-ray player, so I can work through my own list on DVD after Christmas.
For more movie reviews and essays, visit Between Productions.